Tactical Communications: Evolving Technology

Integrated tactical communications systems are expected to be the key in military communications trends as technology makes ever-advanced capabilities possible

Issue: 2 / 2019By Lt General P.C. Katoch (Retd)Photo(s): By University of Washington, Harris
Researchers use a sensor to detect the brain’s electromagnetic pulses and translate them into a base level of communication, for being sent to another person by trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)

In the wake of speedy technological advancements, Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Information and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4I2SR) systems provide sterling opportunities to the defence and security establishment, acting as important force multiplier for commanders at all levels. As militaries vie to improve their network centric warfare capabilities, communications remain vital in current and future scenarios. Continuously evolving solutions for battlefield communications have come a long way over the years, to the highly-advanced networks operating today. With secure communications being crucial for military operations, commercial and government entities are continuously working to improve available solutions.

Tactical Communications Market

According to Global Market Insights, Inc., the global tactical communications market will value around $30 billion by 2024, growing at a CA GR of more than three per cent in 2017-2024. Replacement of outdated legacy systems is expected to drive market growth, while the report cites technological advances like bone conduction, ear canal equipment, and penetration of Long-Term Evolution (LTE) in professional mobile radios as a defining force in the increased adoption of this equipment. The trend for product miniaturisation is expected to transform tactical communications market in coming years. Integrated tactical communications systems are expected to be the key in military communications trends as technology makes everadvanced capabilities possible.

VSAT Networks

One of the most widely-used communications systems for battlefield operations is VSAT networks. With small amount of on-site equipment required, VSAT networks enable mobile, secure, real-time information relays via satellite over commercial or government frequencies, or combination of both. Satellite antennas, modems, and other related equipment have become smaller, more lightweight, and more mobile, meeting ideal size, weight and power (SWaP) requirements to satisfy military user demands. Inmarsat Global Government, ViaSat, Hughes Government Solutions, Harris CapRock and Newtec are all major players in the field of VSAT service solutions, providing increasingly-high specification offerings to an extremely competitive and fast-moving market.

Harris CapRock is a major player in the field of VSAT service solutions

Cognitive radios are another vital component in military operations, enabling soldiers to securely communicate under all kinds of battlefield conditions. A step beyond software-defined radios (SDRs), cognitive radios are sufficiently computationally intelligent regarding radio resources and computer-to-computer communications to detect and act on user needs. Most cognitive radios on the market today can identify potential interference; path-loss, shadowing and multipath fading that might impair use of a particular frequency. These capabilities enable highly secure and extremely efficient military communications, even under harsh conditions, or in contested and/or congested environments. XG Technology, ASELSAN and Per Vices etc are working to evolve cognitive radios to their next higher iteration.

Ethernet and VoIP

The evolution of tactical scenarios based on Ethernet networks is increasing the need to integrate digital voice over IP (VoIP), file transfer, image and video transmission and web based applications on the field. The digital IP based ICC-201 intercom system and PRC -525 tactical combat net radio comply with the aforementioned needs, improving simultaneously the connectivity, interoperability, flexibility and mobility. For example, EID tactical network solutions bring to the market a product line that the C4I costumer needs increasing the command, control and communications capability in a seamless way providing solutions to help deployment of state-of-the-art IP-based tactical networks, from simple wire to optical fibre Ethernet converters and vehicular power supplies to sophisticated rugged servers, rugged router/switches, radio access points and radio-VoIP gateways. The ICC-201 Digital Intercom System has a key role on tactical Ethernet solutions since it is an IP based concept that enables the integration and deployment of hardly any operational scenarios in a robust, compact and seamless way. The system has a rugged server (SR-201) dedicated to run specific costumer software applications, locally or through Ethernet client/server connections, such as battle management system, military message handling system and VoIP Gatekeeper. The server has a connection box (CL-201) designed to allow the use of commercial devices such as keyboard, mouse, webcam, etc, with four dedicated USB-A and two DB9 RS232 standard connectors.

3D Printing and Synthetic Telepathy

The concept of using 3D printing for communications, specifically for “brain-to-computer” interfaces, or ‘synthetic telepathy’ are emerging technologies post research in synthetic telepathy by scientists over the years. A US Army Research Office co-funded research at the University of Washington which successfully demonstrated the use of one person’s brain signals to control the hand of another person in 2014. Electroencephalography (EEG) recorded the brain signals and trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) delivered those signals to the second subject’s brain. Long-range synthetic telepathy could open up incredible new communications options for soldiers in the field, with multiple applications including for covert and Special Forces operations. The ability to communicate via ‘thought’ would speed up decisionmaking and action-taking, improving the chance of mission success. It would also take some time for hostile groups to establish technology capable of hacking these synthetic telepathic communications, if possible at all.

Decision-makers at headquarters would be able to swiftly give orders to soldiers in the battlefield without fear of anyone hacking the communications

At the third annual Intelligence & National Security Summit held in Washington DC on September 7-8, 2016, the Principle Investigator for Materials and Technology Development in Additive Manufacturing at the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL), raised the prospect of 3D printing playing role in advancing biometric communication. A 2008, $4 million research project on synthetic telepathy at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Maryland and UC Irvine, researchers used a sensor to detect the brain’s electromagnetic pulses and translate them into a base level of communication, for being sent to another person by TMS. 3D printing could advance this research by producing helmets embedded with EEG technology. Military would benefit from such enhanced communications capabilities that would also be able to produce such devices as needed in field, to augment supply or replace damaged unit(s). Research to date on both 3D printing and synthetic telepathy is promising, but due to rigorous military manufacturing specifications, 3D printing for military applications has largely been within the special operations community.

Quantum Communications

China crossed the communications fiction barrier by launching its Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) satellite on August 15, 2016. Quantum particles can be transmitted over reasonable distances on Earth, and, according to theory, much greater distances in space. Information encoded in a quantum particle is secure against any computerised hacking because the information would be destroyed as soon as it was measured. In fact, the only way to observe the photon is for it to interact with an electron or an electromagnetic field, both of which would cause the photon to decohere, or interfere with it in a way that would only be apparent to the intended recipient in possession of the encryption key. The advantages that quantum communications could provide to the military are clear; decision-makers at headquarters would be able to swiftly give orders to soldiers in the battlefield without fear of anyone hacking the communications. Similarly, data from the field could be securely relayed back to headquarters for analysis, without enemy interference.

China’s QUESS satellite, enabling hackproof quantum communications, was developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Its main payload was Sagnac interferometer that generates two entangled infrared photos by shining a UV laser on a non-linear optical crystal. QUESS was designed to test quantum communications capabilities between Earth and space, and test quantum entanglement over unprecedented distances, during its two years of operation. While physicists had successfully separated entangled photons by distances up to 300 km on Earth, because they scatter when they travel through optical fibres and are subject to atmospheric turbulence when sent between telescopes, it is challenging to send entangled photons longer distances. In space, however, these interferences are removed.

To test whether quantum communications could provide a viable, global communications option, a number of quantum communications transmissions will take place between QUESS and various Earth stations, including the Xinjiang Astronomical Observatory in western China, the Xinglong Observatory in Yanshan, and, eventually, a site in Vienna. QUESS will also quantum teleport a photon state from the Ali Observatory in Tibet to the satellite. According to Jianwei Pan, QUESS’s Chief Scientist at the University of Science and Technology of China, the ability of the ground stations to perfectly track the satellite, which is travelling at 8km/s, is a major challenge. He said, “It’s very challenging to create a perfect quantum channel between the satellite and the ground station. We have developed a high frequency and high-accuracy acquiring, pointing and tracking technique to do that.” China plans to launch a number of similar satellites to form a quantum communications network by 2030.

On September 29, 2017, China conducted two successful quantum communications experiments; one, long-distance quantum communication landline call connecting Beijing with coastal city of Shanghai over a distance of more than 1,920 km, and; two, Pan’s former doctoral advisor Anton Zeilinger received a video call in Vienna (Austria) from his colleagues in China. This was no ordinary Skype chat but the first quantum-encrypted video call, made possible by the Chinese quantum communication satellite called ‘Micius’. Despite these Chinese milestones, there is still much room for improvement in the technology. For instance, since a quantum satellite needs line-of-sight to transfer data, communication coverage by the satellite is very limited; it has to fly directly over the user. A satellite with a higher orbit can increase its coverage, but will demand higher location tracking accuracy from both the ground receivers and the satellite itself. One solution is to send up more satellites to form a global satellite network but if different institutions contribute to the network, software protocols and trust would remain problematic.

There is also a limitation on bandwidth. Presently, only about one in six million photons sent by the satellite reach the ground receiver. Besides, use of the system by day is not possible due brightness of the sun overwhelming the already dim signal of the satellite. Bandwidth also depends on the number of entangled photons the satellite can generate and store. Presently, the top speed for Micius is just a few kilobytes per second; enough for transmitting a few quantum keys between two science teams, but hardly enough for millions of internet users to simultaneously encrypt sensitive transactions. The Beijing-Shanghai quantum link is a little bit faster than Micius, but essentially still in the same range.

With increasing concerns about cyber security, quantum communications are bound to grow but phones or laptops matching this technology are unlikely to proliferate soon. Presently, these devices are still quite expensive and quite ‘big’. Eventually, it may be possible to make one that can fit on a chip and stick one in every computer. However, significant technological advances would be required. As the practicality of the technology becomes more and more apparent, competition is heating up among nations to take the next step.

Conclusion

Tactical and battlefield communications are improving rapidly. The new generation of high throughout satellites (HTS) are making it increasingly affordable for militaries to optimize satellite communications options. Cognitive radios, synthetic telepathy and quantum communications are now the buzzwords. India needs a lot of focused R&D and catching up to do.